Matt Dayes was walking towards to the North Carolina sideline for the usual post-game handshake when he felt a tug on his shoulder.
Before Dayes could turn around, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren had his star running back wrapped in a bear hug.
After a number of close calls and difficult losses, Dayes and Doeren finally had a moment to celebrate after Friday’s 28-21 road win over the Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3 ACC).
“It was a just a special moment for us and for all we’ve been through since my freshman year and this season,” Dayes said. “To finally get a win like this, against these guys, it was an amazing feeling.”
N.C. State (6-6, 3-5 ACC) has been close, a team of “almosts” as Doeren put it earlier in the week. There was the gut-wrencher at Clemson, the equally painful home losses to Boston College and Florida State and a three-point loss at East Carolina on Sept. 10.
But those disappointments didn’t matter on Friday at Kenan Stadium, where Doeren won for the second time in as many tries. Not with Dayes running for 104 hard-earned yards and a pair of touchdowns. Not with a defense pressuring UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky and vanquishing scourge T.J. Logan, who had 100 yards on just six carries in last year’s 45-34 UNC win in Raleigh.
N.C. State ended up with a 259 to 133 advantage on the ground.
“We were just more physical on both sides of the ball,” guard Tony Adams said. “We knew coming into the game that they didn’t play the run very well.”
Dayes was hurting and didn’t practice all week, with an assortment of injuries, but he was able to run for two touchdowns in the first half. The team had 165 yards and built a 21-7 lead at the break.
“Early on, I thought we were really pushing them around,” Doeren said.
It was the most rushing yards N.C. State has had in an ACC game this season. There was a little extra juice on the Wolfpack sidelines for this game. The players knew the stakes – win or miss a bowl game – and remembered how the Tar Heels got after them early last year in Raleigh.
“I just felt like everybody was just hungry,” junior fullback/tight end Jaylen Samuels said. “Just from the beginning, they were talking a lot of junk before the game. We just tried to block all that out and just play our game.”
The offensive line, ineffective in last week’s home loss to Miami, in particular came out and pushed UNC’s defensive line around.
“It was amazing,” Dayes said. “I don’t know if those guys expected us to just lay down for them, or what it was, but the O-line dominated.”
N.C. State’s defense had a point to make after last year’s loss in Raleigh. UNC rolled up 514 yards of total offense and 374 on the ground. Much of N.C. State’s offseason was about cleaning up the problems on defense after giving up 96 points in season-ending losses to UNC and Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl.
The Wolfpack came into the game ranked No. 7 in the country in run defense and was able to hold Logan and Elijah Hood, who had 220 yards last year but only 56 on Friday, in check.
“We had an offseason of being told how bad they are on defense,” Doeren said. “They worked their butts off to go out there and make a name for themselves this year. We’re not the best on defense but we’re a heckuva lot better. We’re very tough to run the football on.”
The last time N.C. State was here, it ran for 388 yards and won 35-7. That was a high-water mark for Doeren in his first four seasons before adding another on Friday.
Doeren celebrated with his players after the game. The difference between losing to Clemson or Florida State was one play here or there. The Wolfpack found a way to make those plays against UNC.
And for that, Dayes and his coach were able to smile after the game and savor the win.
“It’s just a great feeling for us to end it like this,” Dayes said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio